Pride and Prejudice
Growing up in Germany, I was raised to be unpatriotic. But in multicultural New York City, where everyone loves a parade, ethnic celebration can also carry undercurrents of hatred.
Two days after my husband and I moved to Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, in 2008, an old German man whom I will call Otto introduced himself. He was dressed in shorts, knee-highs, and sandals, his hair gray and thinning. “Hello,” he said as I sat on my stoop drinking beer. “I live in the house with the flowers.”
Everybody has flowers in their front yard in Sunnyside Gardens, but Otto’s flower arrangements stand out: His garden’s neat choreography rivals that of a North Korean mass performance. Trying to reach the ultimate perfection, Otto, in his mid-70s, is always sweeping, digging, raking, pruning, and polishing things. On hot summer nights he sits on his stoop listening to German folk music on an old cassette recorder, while his Puerto Rican wife, whom I’ll call Maria, watches baseball games in the living room.
Otto never misses an opportunity to tell me how much he aches for Germany. Born and raised in the western state of Nordrhein-Westfalen during the Third Reich, Otto immigrated to the United States in the 1950s because his company relocated. He thought he’d eventually go back, but he met Maria and the couple married. In 1982, they bought a house in Queens.
Our block is perhaps the most diverse one in the world. I am a Protestant born and raised in Germany; my husband is Catholic, from Mexico. We met in 2004, in New York City, and married in 2006. Our neighbors are from Pakistan, India, Great Britain, Peru, Ecuador, Australia, China, Turkey, and Ireland. We are white, pink, beige, brown, and black. Our neighbors are Protestants, Jews, Catholics, atheists, agnostics, and Muslims. Most recently, an Orthodox rabbi with his wife and four children moved from Israel to a house on our block to take the pulpit at the Young Israel of Sunnyside congregation, which had been without a rabbi for several years. The synagogue celebrated his arrival with a little parade down our block. Neighbors of all shades and creeds sat on their stoops in the sun; some took pictures and waved at the float that carried the rabbi’s neatly dressed children. In Sunnyside Gardens my husband and I felt at home for the first time in decades. It seemed like a safe and welcoming place.
Aside from our nationality, Otto and I have little in common. We both married Latinos, as he once noted, but in addition to an age gap of nearly four decades, we have different tastes in music, clothes, literature, and garden decor. Until recently, Otto left German tabloid magazines on my front porch for me to read, and not wanting to hurt his feelings, I never told him that they went right into the recycling bin. But despite our differences, when Otto asked me to check in on Maria while he traveled to Germany for a trip, I agreed. This may be his last trip home, he said.
Taking care of Maria was far more demanding than I had imagined. I was supposed to drop by once a day and make sure that Maria hadn’t suddenly fallen ill or down the stairs.
“My head is spinning,” she told me on the first morning. “It feels like I have one head on top of the other.” I looked at Maria’s head. I saw nothing wrong. I offered to take her to the doctor, but Maria waved off my offer. “I’ve felt like this for years,” she said.
The next day Maria complained about back pain. “Damn Otto!” she said. “He screwed up my back.” When I asked what happened, she said, “He had a heart attack and fell on top of me.”
Each day Maria complained about something else. She hated hospitals because of the black nurses, and Jews because her sister was married to an allegedly lazy one. She hated the envelope I bought for the “Home Sweet Home” calendar she wanted to send to her sister (presumably the one who married the “lazy Jew”). Maria also hated the milk and the potatoes her Puerto Rican neighbor got her. She even hated Sunnyside. (“Too many trees,” she said.) I was sure that Maria hated me too.
The last few days of Otto’s absence, Maria played possum. I rang the bell but no one opened. Just to make sure everything was OK, I walked past her house at night to check whether the lights came on. They did.
When Otto returned from his vacation, he stopped by my house. “I’m sorry about my wife,” he said. “I think she’s faking it.” There was no way of denying that something was wrong with Maria, so I didn’t.
But what was wrong with Otto that he would be married to Maria? He didn’t strike me as a hater. He, too, had mentioned his lazy Jewish brother-in-law, but added apologetically, “You know there are good Jews and bad Jews.” At least he’s trying to make a distinction, I thought. I decided to let it slide.
The misguided prophet Balaam—who knew that words have meanings and must be used judiciously—should be the patron saint of the Internet